Tom McNeely (2008)
I am very honored and grateful to be included on this list of writers. This year was the third time I've applied for an NEA, and it couldn't have come at a better time. My wife and I recently moved across the country for her new job, and soon thereafter brought home our daughter from Guatemala. In the meantime, I've been trying to complete a novel I've been working on for years. This grant will allow my wife and I to pay for child care and save for our daughter's education; it will also provide more intangible, and just as necessary, support for the completion of my book.
From the short story "Tickle Torture"
In their motel room, his mother brushed her teeth and washed her face, chiding Hugh's father in the mirror. To keep from listening, Hugh turned on the TV; the voice his mother used in the mirror had nothing to do with anything she'd said to his father since he'd left last fall.
Hugh changed into swimming trunks and a T-shirt, noticing, even in the room's dim light, how dirty they were. He propped himself up against a headboard and tried to remember the last time his mother had washed his clothes.
As usual, they were sharing a room because his mother wanted to economize. When there was only one bed, like now, some motel clerks offered to set up cots, but most didn't bother.
His mother glided past the TV. One minute, Mary Tyler Moore was there, then a silhouette of his mother's plump body. Her nightgowns were blue and thin; they seemed made not of fabric, but of smell: a warm, sweet odor of cold cream and sweat and flesh. She raised the stiff bedcovers and settled herself next to him.
"I still don't see why we can't go," he said.
"Please, honey." His mother lay her hand across her forehead and shut her eyes. "We've been over this a thousand times."
"If daddy was here, we'd go." Hugh said this not because he believed it, but to nettle her. "Everything was better when daddy was around. We didn't drive all day and see boring things and stay in crummy motels. We were normal."
His mother shielded her eyes. "The sun was brighter, the sky bluer, and you never had to go to school."
"We floated through life on a pink perfumed cloud."
Hugh laughed, but his throat ached, as it did when he cried.
"A pink perfumed cloud," his mother said, glancing at him, tweaking his armpit.
Laughing, he squirmed away from her. It didn't feel like it used to, when they had sat on her bed, eating animal crackers and watching TV, waiting for his father to come home. Then, tickling had been a kind of relief. Now, it felt as if his mother were trying to make him believe he was happy. She noodled his ribs, and he batted her hands away.
"Honey," she said. "What's wrong?"
"I told you."
"Do you really want to go?"
"I told you," he said, hiding his face from her.
He lay with his head in her lap. She stroked his hair until he shook off her hand. Since his father left, he often slept with her, as he had when he was very young. He knew that most eleven-year-old boys didn't cry on their mothers' laps, or sleep with them, or allow themselves to be tickled, but he hadn't told any of the boys at school what his life was like with his mother. That was why he wanted to go to Corpus. In summers past, Hugh and his cousins had snuck out, dressed as witches and gypsies, to tell each other secrets while their parents slept.
His mother got up to turn off the TV. When she lay down, Hugh listened to her breath slow and deepen. Streetlight bled across the ceiling above the room's sole window. He tried to dream of Cecilia and Amien. Last July, their father had died. When Hugh and his parents had gone to the funeral, his cousins had kept, their eyes downcast, their mouths tightly shut, and had hardly spoken to him.
Toward dawn, Hugh woke to find himself pressed against his mother's back. Carefully, he propped himself up and drew back the covers. He studied her soft, sleeping, mysterious body, then covered her before she woke.
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Thomas McNeely recently completed a Jones Lectureship in Fiction at Stanford University, where he was a Stegner Fellow. He has also received fellowships from the J. Frank Dobie Foundation at the University of Texas, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, and other organizations. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, Epoch, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals, and has been reprinted in several anthologies, including Best of the South: From the Second Decade of New Stories from the South. He is currently finishing a novel, The Secret World, excerpted in StoryQuarterly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Cheryl McGrath